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To The Victor Goes the Spoils (Gardening)

Monday, June 10, 2013

I am a city girl. Not necessarily metropolitan cities, but I have never lived in a rural community or a farm. I grew up thinking of food as something you buy in a grocery store. My family never did much backyard gardening because the soil and climate in Colorado was terrible for crop plants.

I do not have much experience with plants. House plants tend not to live very long in my care. If I underwater plants, they turn yellow and die. But confoundedly, if I overwater them, they also turn yellow and die. So I don't know if I'm giving too much or too little, and by the time I know which, it's too late.

I have been labeled the "black thumb" by my husband. Heaven forbid a pretty plant catches my eye, because I might sentence it to death by taking it home.

I have even killed cactus.

When I moved to Seattle, a metropolitan city, I was shocked to discover how much farmland surrounds the city. It is truly the Emerald City. Everything is green. It is the complete opposite of Colorado; the climate and soil are rich and fertile for growing plants. I was once told by a native, "If you can't grow it in Washington, you can't grow it anywhere."

I became very interested in the idea of the urban pea patches where Seattle city dwellers could rent small patches of land to grow their own crops. The waiting list was ridiculously long. In the six years I lived there, I was never able to get one.

However, I discovered a U-pick farm in Redmond. We all know Redmond, WA as the capital of Microsoft these days, but there are still parts where there are farms and wineries. They have dwindled as some farmers opted to sell their land for the premiums corporations and land developers offered. There are a few holdouts, though. This particular farm I found hiding on the backside of the largest software company in the world was one of them.

They did not sell their produce commercially; they sold their produce straight to the public. I would not say they were a certified organic operation, though. They did use some commercial pesticides and fertilizers, however, they were very reserved in their usage. Poisoned soil would grow no more food. They still employed the traditional agriculture technique of crop rotation. The lettuce would be grown on the left side of the field one year, and the next year it would be on the right. They did not use Monsanto seed. I would not say that buying from them was cheaper than the local Safeway. The price was more like buying from Whole Foods - not cheap. However, cost wasn't the reason you bought them from. Even Whole Foods could not give you what this farm offered.

Every year I eagerly waited for the spring, summer and fall crops. They gave us a basket, and we walked around the farms where they marked with a green flag the produce ready for picking. They grew the well known vegetable classics like onions, carrots, potatoes, squashes and tomatoes, of course, but they also grew exotic varieties of herbs and veggies that you'll never find in a store. I can't remember the names of them because they were exotic! But I ate several different varieties of Greek, Italian and Asian fruits, veggies and herbs I've never seen or heard of before.

I ate heirloom varieties of tomatoes that were so juicy and sweet, I could understand why tomatoes are actually fruits, not vegetables. The tomatoes we buy commercially are bred to be bruise resistant as they travel in transit, but they taste like cardboard; they are flavorless. These heirloom tomatoes grown on the farm were the classic tomatoes that my grandmother probably grew up with. They were like a very juicy, soft apple.

Potatoes from the farm tasted like "apples from the earth," which is what their French name pomme de terre means. I never understood why those crazy French named them that...until I picked them, washed them, cooked them, and ate them. They didn't even need any salt to be delicious.

Zucchinis are my favorite vegetable, but I was spoiled by the ones I picked from the farm. They were so fresh, they tasted "green" and "alive". Now when I eat store bought zukes, they taste "flat" and "dead". I remember wistfully that they are pale imitations of the real thing. The farm fresh zukes were so bright and flavorful, I could eat them raw. Wholesome food is flavorful without being cooked to death with seasoning. Now I could understand why grandma used to say food tasted better in the golden days. I can believe that it was literally true. I didn't know until that moment when I bit into a freshly picked and washed zuke, and I just wanted to devour it whole.

There are farms in Georgia, but they aren't like the ones in Washington. At least, I haven't found any like that one in Redmond. There is a small farmer's market in downtown Savannah every Sunday, but I live far enough away that I can't always get there.

Now that I've had a taste of what 'real' produce should taste like, it's hard for me not to look at store bought produce as pretenders. Sure it looks like a tomato, but it's just a shadow of what it should be. Zucchinis are still my favorites, I suppose.

I was living in ignorance of what real food should taste like. Now I know what it should be, it is hard to go back.

Since moving to Georgia, I've been so desperate to get back to the delicious real food. I have attempted patio gardening growing tomatoes and herbs several times, but the summer heat eventually kills them. It is a lot harder to keep plants alive in scorching hot weather outside, and I've already established I'm not a great gardener to begin with.

The first 'home improvement' I wanted to make when we moved into our house was to build a raised bed garden. I wrote about it several months ago. I planted three different varieties of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, jalapenos, and bell peppers.

I haven't shown pictures of it developing because it kind of took a life of its own! My tomato plants went from small little bushes into viney monstrosities that I didn't expect! Here's a photo hubs took of the cat and me inspecting it.

A close up of my cherry tomatoes. On one of the leaves, you can see where the bugs are eating my plant alive.

The roma tomatoes are ripening.

This is my bounty from this afternoon. Two different types of cherry tomatoes and a couple of romas. One of the cherry tomatoes burst in my hand as I was picking it, and it was so sweet, my hands felt sticky.

I am growing semi-organically, and it is a challenge. As I've said, I have no background with growing vegetables at all. I'm learning as I go. I have learned three tomato plants in my 5x3 raised bed garden is too many! My tomatoes have engaged in plant survival of the fittest as they try to grow the biggest and tallest to get the most sun. My roma tomato plant is losing the battle. I've trimmed the others back quite a bit, and they are still out of control. If I do this again next year, I'm going to plan differently. My jalapenos and bell peppers are crowded out by the tomato plants - I'm not going to get any fruit I don't think. My tomatoes are delicious...and vicious. They don't want to share the box.

My plants seem to be surviving well because they are in a large planter box with lots of soil, so it retains more moisture even in the heavy heat. This was my major problem with my container garden. My pots didn't have enough soil to retain water to both cool and feed my plants.

As with any gardener, I am at war with a number of pests who want to eat my plants. Bugs, slugs, birds and squirrels mainly. I put bird netting over the top, but my tomato plants refused to be contained and grew through it.

The squirrels are the biggest pains in my rear. I no longer think they are 'cute.' They are pests that dig holes all over the yard, and try to steal my veggies. I seriously want a dog so s/he can chase the friggin squirrels out of the yard. I've seen a few remnants of partially eaten green tomatoes, so I think the squirrels have been sampling to see if they are something good to eat. The bird netting keeps the fruit mostly protected, but they are exposed where they have grown through the net. So I will most likely unwillingly share part of my crop with the neighborhood birds and squirrels. I'm not sure how I will address this for next year. Bigger hoops and a bigger net? Dunno.

The organic part of the gardening has been interesting, and I came up with a few issues as I went along. I used mostly organic soil, but I did mix it with a little commercial soil and top soil for cost reasons. I haven't used any fertilizer yet, and I'm glad I didn't because my plants have already grown too large.

The first time I went to water my plants, it occurred to me that my garden hose wasn't 'organic'. Water is the main ingredient for vegetables, and I didn't want my vegetables to taste like garden hose. I went and bought a potable water hose meant for RVs to water with.

I bought an organic pesticide that is made of essential oils. Certain plants are natural bug repellants, and this pesticide I found was made of peppermint and oregano oil. It seems to work ok, but it smells very strong. It is completely safe to eat, but if it doesn't get washed off my veggies, it does leave an odd aftertaste. Next year I will try to reorganize my planter to contain some companion plants to deter bugs so maybe I won't have to use so much.

If nothing else, this has been an eye opening experience on what it takes to grow food. I've written many times about how disconnected we are with our food. There's no way I could grow enough food to feed my husband and I, but this is a very welcome supplement. I am nostalgic for the farm fresh produce that was so readily available to me in Washington, but since I can't have it, this is the best I can do. The tomatoes I'm growing are plentiful enough that I probably won't need to buy any store bought tomatoes this summer.

Sometimes the challenges seem to be more effort than it is worth, but when I wash and eat my efforts still hot from the sun, I change my mind. It is worth enjoying while it lasts.

P.S. I didn't realize this would be so long when I wrote it! So if you read all the way through, thank you! :) You deserve an award!

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I know you're a little further south than me, but WOW am I surprised at how many tomatoes you have already! We have a couple of fruits growing on one plant and lots of flowers on the others, but it will still be a week or so before we get our first real tomato. (And let's not talk about what the beans and squash are up to. It's upsetting)

    I absolutely hear you about real vs. grocery store produce. We have a CSA this summer and we still visit the farmer's market, so the only vegetables I buy at the grocery store now are onions and garlic (the cashiers must think I'm a horribly irresponsible adult, going through the line with nothing from the produce section but bananas and apples) -- it's AMAZING the difference in flavor. I thought I hated collards until I tasted young, just-harvested organic greens from a farm just 5 miles away.

    So Zucchini is your favorite veggie? What do you... you know, DO with it? I really do not like summer squash at all, so I basically just "hide" it as a replacement in Italian pasta dishes. But if you know a really good grain-free zucchini bread recipe I am ALL ears!
    1771 days ago
    I really love this line: "Now that I've had a taste of what 'real' produce should taste like, it's hard for me not to look at store bought produce as pretenders. "

    Great blog! Best of luck with your newly green thumb.
    1776 days ago
    Your plants look so healthy! I have a problem with the squirrels too....have built cages around my planters for now, but my tomatoes aren't nearly as big as yours at the moment. I'll see how that goes. They have eaten the raspberries off the vine I planted already!
    1778 days ago
    I too am jealous of your tomatoes and even more of your sunshine. I can't believe they are this year's crop! It hasn't been warm enough here yet to plant tomatoes outside.
    We don't get enough sunshine here in Ireland so our tomatoes can take months to grow and are often pathetic specimens! Then the rain brings out the slugs! Warm tomatoes from the garden -yum! with a little olive oil and basil- yum! yum!
    1779 days ago

    Comment edited on: 6/11/2013 12:47:59 PM
    Great post! Especially living in the Pacific NW, I know what you're talking about in terms of growing things here. I didn't see if any of your other commentor mentioned CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), but that might be another option for you. A good friend of mine lives in a suburb of Atlanta and loves the farm they have a share in. Local Harvest (http://www.localharvest.org/csa/) is a way to find a farm in your area - you can search by ZIP code or state, then narrow it down. I'm sure you could probably still find a farm with shares for this year. You could also try cages for your tomatoes (hard to tell from your photo if you have some or not). That might help keep the errant cherry tomatoes off the roma :) Happy gardening! emoticon
    1780 days ago
    As to the bugs, consider it a compliment from Mother Nature. My dad always said to be very suspicious of any plant that bugs DIDN'T want to eat. "If they won't eat it, you shouldn't either."

    My grandmother was the real gardener in the family, and I still look back at the foods we had when I was growing up with a little bit of awe. I mean, we feed our kids better than most parents nowadays do, but, as you say, grocery store produce is like a cardboard mockup of the original.

    Great blog! You should be the one getting the award though!
    1780 days ago

    Comment edited on: 6/10/2013 11:00:33 PM
    Cool blog (yeah, i got all the way through!)

    i admire anyone with the patience to grow and tend a garden. My dad grew a vegetable garden in our back yard (he emigrated to the US in the 50s from a long tradition of home gardening). I spent hours every weekend watering, weeding, trimming and doing all the chores that young kids hate to do when there are better opportunities to play with friends.

    To this day, I still pay someone to mow my lawn!

    Enjoy the garden!
    1780 days ago
  • GLC2009
    emoticon here's my award, i read all the way through emoticon
    i am hoping to get a raised garden bed going. i have no gardening skills either and will enjoy learning how to grow my own veggies. we have lots of fruit and berries growing, but, the birds and bears seem to get them before we do. i have no idea how to keep them away. the only thing i ever really get is the blueberries. either there's so many or the animals don't like them as much. i don't know.
    anyway, i enjoyed your blog and congrats on your gardening success. emoticon
    1780 days ago
  • _VALEO_
    Really enjoyed reading your blog!
    It seems you gave your garden a lot of thoughts, and food for thoughts.
    Black thumb could have been my middle name too; until I realized that it mainly applies to house plants in my case, and not garden. Maybe the pot plants that we are sold are not meant to survive.

    As a 'crazy' linguist emoticon I wonder why the French 'ananas' is named 'pinapple' in English. Pinapple being translated as "pomme de pin" into French, and "une pomme de pin" is actually a "fir/pine cone."

    I am jealous of your tomatoes. I haven't planted anything yet this year due to my poor weather conditions. One of the things I've learnt since I moved there 3 1/2 years ago and had my first garden ever is that you have to share with the animals, and they will help you back.

    Happy harvesting!

    1780 days ago

    Comment edited on: 6/10/2013 7:23:22 PM
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